Sep 12, 2023 - Economy

Workers who get promoted are more likely to quit their jobs, new research finds

Illustration of an exit sign with a person's silhouette forming the "I". 

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Workers who get promoted are more likely to quit their jobs, finds a new analysis from ADP.

Why it matters: The conventional wisdom is that promotions are a classic "retention" tool that help keep top performers from jumping ship — particularly important in today's still-tight job market.

By the numbers: Researchers looked at data from 1.2 million workers at companies with a minimum of 1,000 employees from 2019 to 2022, and built a model to predict someone's risk of leaving after their first promotion.

  • They found that 29% of workers leave within the first month of a promotion. If those workers had not been promoted, only 18% would have left.
  • Key point: Six months after the promotion, the risk divide narrows and after that the un-promoted are slightly more likely to quit.

What's happening: A promotion and the new job title that goes along with it make workers more desirable to other employers. Especially the lowest-skill, lowest-wage workers.

  • A new, higher-status job title helps other companies recognize someone's experience and skill, particularly when there aren't other signifiers  like a degree or technical certification.
  • Lower-skill workers were nearly six times more likely to leave their job in the first month after a promotion than if they hadn't gotten the title boost. And the promotion doubled their chances of leaving within nine months.

For those in higher-skill jobs, within five months the risk of leaving dropped below where it had been before their promotion.

  • Keep in mind that top performers on the cusp of advancement are already at a heightened flight risk — it's possible they were already putting out feelers before they were promoted, said Nela Richardson, chief economist at ADP.

One big flight risk is the worker who gets promoted into management. "That jump is the most fraught with vulnerability," she said.

  • The skill sets for being a manager versus being an individual contributor are different — a good architect might not be a good boss of architects, for example. A good reporter might not be a good editor. The new role might be frustrating enough to lead someone to quit entirely.
  • "Someone who's used to having a lot of personal success on an individual track has to confront being a mere mortal as a manager," is how Richardson put it.

Reality check: The quit rate for all these workers was likely elevated in the time period the researchers studied — which covered all of the Great Resignation phase of the labor market. It's likely that fewer folks would leave in a bad job market.

  • Plus: Promotions don't happen that often. According to ADP's data, only 4.5% of workers are promoted within two years of being hired.

The bottom line: Promotions are still worthwhile for employers if companies handle the process well.

  • That means helping folks adjust to a new role — especially for individual contributors who move to management and find themselves thrust in a completely new kind of job.
  • The pay off? After their risk of leaving diminishes, promoted workers are more committed to their jobs and are likely more productive overall to the organization.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to state that those who are promoted into management pose a big (not the biggest) flight risk.

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